iCar, what? Apple pours more sand in the engine of its phantom car project

SAN FRANCISCO – Hi folks, and welcome back to “Is Apple Building A Car,” the game where reading between the lines is more important than focusing on the road.

Our Wednesday installment features media reports that the iPhone maker — which insists its so-called Project Titan is a fantasy – is in investment talks with British supercar builder McLaren and Bay Area electric motorcycle startup Lit Motors.

These discussions, were reported by the Financial Times and The New York Times respectively, were leaked by anonymous sources and immediately denied by all the companies concerned.

But both plays make sense. More on that in a moment.

Regular players of this game will know that as a notoriously secretive outfit, rumor denial is standard operating procedure at Apple.

To sum up:

The Cupertino, Calif. company has shut down speculation that it could use some of its $200 billion in cash to buy Tesla, whose electric cars feel more like sleek Apple products than any other vehicle on the road, including BMW’s zippy i3 EV.

Apple also has denied reports that it talked to a private test track facility east of San Francisco, chatted up cutting-edge Austrian automotive supplier Magna Steyr, or powwowed with electric-car charging station companies.

Asked in an August Washington Post interview if an Apple auto was on the horizon, CEO Tim Cook coyly answered: “We’ve always viewed that people love surprises.”

Fine. But it's hard to start a car company from scratch. So, where there’s media-fueled exhaust, is there fire?

Tangible evidence that Apple is well aware of the coming multi-billion-dollar transportation revolution includes its $1 billion investment last May in Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing. The map-miles logged by Didi’s drivers and its own self-driving car project could help bring Apple up to speed.

There’s also Above Avalon analyst Neil Cybart’s note that Apple is on track to spend a record $10 billion on research and development this year, more than triple its 2012 spend. That would be a lot of dough to drop on a new iPhone,  especially one in a softening and saturated market.

And in July, Bloomberg reported that Apple hired Dan Dodge, founder of QNX, the BlackBerry-owned auto software division that provides infotainment systems to a host of automotive manufacturers. Whether an Apple Car did or didn’t have a steering wheel, it would surely have to brandish a cutting-edge display to rival Tesla’s massive signature touchscreen.

Now, just a few weeks ago there were reports that Apple had fired dozens of employees working on its non-existent car project, which was two months ago was allegedly taken over by Steve Jobs-era veteran Bob Mansfield.

This news caused some pundits to question whether Apple was bailing on its automotive gambit, perhaps feeling the heat from Google (now testing in five states), Ford (committed to selling a driverless-car by 2021) and Uber (started picking up Pittsburgh passengers in driverless cars last week).

But a Bloomberg report citing unnamed sources suggested that losing a few dozen from a staff that is rumored to be in the hundreds (and stacked with veterans of Tesla and other automotive companies) merely reflects a pivot in focus, one likely toward self-driving technology given the momentum in that space.

On Tuesday, the federal government even weighed in with a 112-page document outlining how it plans to work with self-driving car companies toward what many see as an inevitable near-future that should cut into the 35,000 annual car deaths.

So let’s assume for the sake of this column that Apple will, in five years, be parking a car inside its Apple stores, tucked neatly between the latest iMac running Mt. Everest software and an iPhone 12 that displays holograms.

Getting a car out that fast – one that in Apple tradition marries its own hardware and software – will require partnerships or acquisitions with innovative companies that share Apple’s obsession with detail.

McLaren sports cars meet that criteria, and then some. Slip inside the $1.1-million McLaren P1 and the carbon-fiber and Alcantara-clad hypercar makes a Mercedes feel like a Yugo.

What’s more, McLaren's vaunted Applied Technologies division not only works on systems and electronics for consumer and racing cars, its expertise extends to helping a British pharmaceutical company figure out how to streamline its toothpaste plant.

Could advice on a car production line be far behind?

As for Lit Motors, the San Francisco-based startup founded by Daniel Kim – who like Steve Jobs dropped out of Oregon’s Reed College – is working not just on an electric motorcycle, but on one that will not fall over thanks to powerful gyroscopes.

As Kim told USA TODAY for a 2013 profile, “My end goal is to have a big, positive impact on the world in terms of carbon emissions and providing a safer and more enjoyable commuting experience.”

Sounds like a man after Cook’s heart. And speaking of Apple staffers, many are car people.

Eddy Cue, the company’s senior vice president of software and services, is a car collector who sits on the board of Ferrari. Marketing chief Phil Schiller is said to favor Porsches. British-born design chief Jony Ive favors a stately Bentley Mulsanne, a $350,000 sedan that feels more like a wood- and silver-paneled English library.

Ive's Oz-like video narration accompanied the launch of iPhone 7 a few weeks ago, but his exact responsibilities of late seem to be a bit vague. Some reports have him designing furniture for Apple’s new headquarters.

Really? That would be like asking Monet to draw a cartoon. My bet: He’s helping Apple build a self-driving McLaren-Bentley-Ferrari for the people.

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava @marcodellacava


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